Introduction 328-2014 Open FOIL

Date of Introduction: 
05/14/2014
Committee: 
Plain English Summary: 

Open FOIL would create a centralized, searchable database of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests sent to City agencies. The online database would allow members of the public to both file FOIL requests and search previous ones. Information would include the date each request was filed and documentation of its progress. The site would be developed by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Office of Operations.

Legislative Text: 
By Council Members Kallos, Vacca, Arroyo, Cabrera, Constantinides, Crowley, Gentile, Koo, Lancman and Mendez (at the request of the Manhattan Borough President)
 
 
A Local Law to amend the New York city charter, in relation to the creation of a centralized FOIL website.
 
 
Be it enacted by the Council as follows:
Section 1. Section 15 of the New York city charter is amended by adding a new subdivision h to read as follows:
h. The office of operations shall develop reporting and performance guidelines in connection with the statistical information required to be available pursuant to paragraph 10 of  subdivision c of section 1076 of the charter at the portal developed and maintained pursuant to subdivision b of such section and in the mayor's management report, and may establish requirements for additional freedom of information law-related statistics to be reported on such portal and in such report if it determines that such additional reporting would be useful to the public.
§2. Chapter 48 of the New York city charter is amended by adding a new section 1076 to read as follows:
§1076 Online, centralized freedom of information system. a. For the purposes of this section, the following terms shall have the following meanings:
(1) "agency" means any governmental entity of the city of New York subject to the requirements of article six of the public officers law;
(2) "department" means the department of information technology and telecommunications, or any successor agency;
(3) "office" means the mayor's office of operations, or any successor office;
(4) "record" means any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for an agency or the city council, in any physical or digital form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, physical files, computer files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes; and
(5) "request" means a freedom of information law request for records made pursuant to article six of the public officers law and received by an agency.
b. The department, in consultation with the office, shall develop and maintain a software system to process all requests for agency records. Such system shall make available to the public, at no charge and without any registration requirement, a portal on the city's website, to be developed and maintained by the department, that provides information documenting each step of the freedom of information law process for each request received, including, but not limited to, the following information, which shall be in a machine readable and externally searchable format:
(1) a unique identification number for each request;
(2) the content of each request;
(3) the date each request was received by the applicable agency;
(4) the date and content of such agency's acknowledgement of receipt of the request;
(5) the date and content of any determination made in response to the request; and
(6) a downloadable copy of the records released for the request, in a machine readable format if one exists for the type of records released.
c. The software system developed and maintained pursuant to subdivision b of this section shall allow:
(1) agencies to receive and respond to requests for records from within such system;
(2) for the uploading by agencies of digital files in multiple formats, including open and machine-readable formats, of requested records;
(3) for the redaction of uploaded documents by agencies without the need to download or re-upload documents;
(4) agencies and the public to track the progress of each request;
(5) members of the public to file requests on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to this section;
(6) for the full text search of the content of all requests on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to this section;
(7) for the full text search of all machine-readable records made available in response to a request on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to this section;
(8) for access to electronic copies of all records, regardless of form or format, sent in response to a request on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to this section. Such copies shall also be published to the open data web portal developed and maintained pursuant to chapter five of title 23 of the administrative code, and such copies that are data, as defined in section 23-501 of the administrative code, shall include the complete data set from which such records were produced on such open data web portal;
(9) for programmatic access to the data within the site through an Application Programming Interface;
(10) members of the public to request and receive automated notifications of any determination or other action involving information required to be reported on the portal relating to any request on such portal;
(11) members of the public to access a directory, which shall be prominently displayed on the portal, that includes the name, title, and contact information for each records access officer at each agency; and
(12) the public to access statistics on requests by agency on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to this section, including the aggregate monthly, yearly, and year-to-date (i) number of requests received, (ii) number of requests for which some or all of such request is outstanding, (iii) number of requests for which some or all of the request has been outstanding for more than thirty business days, (iv) number of requests for which the agency supplied all requested information, (iv) number of determinations made to deny access to requested records, and (v) average resolution time for requests. These statistics shall also be included in the mayor's management report for each agency for the applicable fiscal year.
d. The information required to be posted on the portal developed and maintained pursuant to subdivision b of this section shall be posted with respect to each request as soon as practicable, but in no case more than ten business days after the occurrence of any of the following: the receipt of a request, any determination regarding the release of records, and any other action involving information required to be reported on such portal relating to a request. The machine-readable information required by subdivision c of this section shall be considered a public data set for the purposes of chapter five of title 23 of the administrative code.
e. The home page and, to the extent one exists, the "contact us" or "freedom of information request" page of the website of every agency shall include a link to the portal developed and maintained pursuant to subdivision b of this section.
f. Every agency shall use the portal developed and maintained pursuant to subdivision b of this section to receive and respond to requests unless otherwise requested by an individual or entity making a request. Upon receipt of any request by means other than the portal, the receiving agency shall enter the request into such portal, and shall track the progress of such request as required by subdivision c of this section.
§3. This local law shall take effect one year after its enactment, provided, however, that the department of information technology and telecommunications, and the office of operations, shall take such actions prior to such time as are necessary for timely implementation of this local law, and further provided that within ninety days of the enactment of this local law, the office shall submit an implementation plan and implementation manual to the council describing to the council and agencies the steps necessary to implement this law, and providing guidance to agencies on the standards for the tracking of, and filing of, requests and responses to such requests, pursuant to the requirements of this local law, including the creation of a citywide identifier for each such request.

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Open Up FOIL

My name is Adam Wisnieski and I am a freelance journalist from the Bronx. The following testimony is on behalf of myself as a citizen of New York City and not as a representative of any news organization I work for.

I have a great deal of experience submitting Freedom of Information requests to city, state and federal agencies. The City of New York's FOIL system is broken. Some agencies respond quickly to complicated requests while others never respond to simple ones. Some insist on printing lengthy documents and there are a few that even require the requester travel downtown to pick up documents when e-mailing the documents would be much easier and cost taxpayers less money. I have had agencies shoot down my FOIL requests by saying there are "no responsive documents," despite my knowledge that those documents exist and only after an appeal were they given to me. I have waited months and months for requests and currently have more than a dozen outstanding requests at various city agencies. There is no uniformity in the system and I think this legislation will help fix that.

Government needs to be held accountable for not following the state's Freedom of Information Law. This legislation would result in the public having statistics on how well agencies respond to requests, which is a good first step. But there needs to be some sort of an accountability measure that will change how agencies view FOIL requests. I believe at certain city agencies, the default is to withhold information rather than release it to a journalist or a member of the public. I think exposure will help, but sometimes government agencies need more of an incentive. I am not sure what can be done to accomplish this, but some sort of penalty (or even a system of positive incentives) need to be part of the legislation.

It is often said that government agencies discriminate based on who is making a request. I do not have evidence of this, but I will share an experience I have had. As an independent freelance writer, I often file requests under my own name, without the tagline of any news outlet and without any mention that I am a journalist. I do this because when I file the request, I have no idea what news outlet I will end up writing the story for if there is a story to report. Despite filing under my name without an affiliated news outlet, I have had instances where government agencies have responded to my requests with a name of a news organization I previously worked for. This does not prove discrimination, but it does prove the government agency was interested in the fact that I was a journalist and not simply a member of the public. Governments should treat every requester the same. I think an online tracker will help prevent this.

That being said, there have been concerns raised by members of the press that there should be a system in place where documents are delayed to give a reporter time to report on it. While I understand that exclusivity is part of this business, the focus should be on fixing the system first. Having requests completed faster (and in machine-readable format!) is most important. If that is accomplished, whether requesters should have access to those documents for a period of time before they are posted online is a good problem for journalists to have. Given the option of 1. waiting years for the NYPD to finally fork over detailed machine readable data on every arrest/summons for marijuana in a given year just so I could have exclusive access to that data and release it myself ahead of the FOIL portal or 2. being notified by the NYPD after a few weeks that this data has been published on an online portal for all to see, I will always choose the latter.

And my Twitter handle is @adamthewiz.

—Adam Wisnieski, Bronx, N.Y.

The FOIL law should NOT reveal the identifty of regular people a

The FOIL law should NOT reveal the identifty of regular people asking for documents.  It can and should be what was requested and the agency response/s, but provacy is important for people to do research without fear of retribution.

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